Priest as Evangelizer

We Catholics now focus more intensely on our responsibility to “spread the Good News” to all those who have not heard it or to the flock. Various workshops teach us how to open our doors of faith to others — especially with a sense of enthusiasm and joy to those who have heard it, but have strayed away from the Pastor and Jesus Christ in our life.

Over the centuries, our Church has focused on evangelization, beginning very especially with the journeys of St. Paul and all the apostles. The early Church realized the richness of the faith as shown in the sacraments; the early question centered on how to get these mysteries into the hearts of people who could neither read nor write? They discovered that the Liturgy itself is the best teacher, meaning that the symbols and signs possess within themselves teachers of these mysteries.

In my experience as a priest I have discovered that, during the rite of baptism, you have assembled all types of people with all types of backgrounds in faith or no faith. One can call this the baptismal assembly. Here, in how we share each of these elements within the process of baptism, we have a gold mine for evangelization. So much might be very strange to some; (remember that, prior to Vatican II, baptisms were conducted in Latin in some back corner of the church with few people there?)

Now we have oil, the sign of the cross, the water, white dress, chrism, candle, all representing a radical transformation into Christ. We have light for darkness, the chrism blessing of the child (infant baptism) — and that beautiful blessing to the father and mother given only here and in one other situation: at the marriage vows. Embellishment (provides a wealth for evangelization. The goal is for each person to experience this mystery as very human, very real, and very holy and to leave the church with a special remembrance.

Within this special baptismal community, often you will find among the guests former Catholics as well as those not belonging to the Catholic faith. Those who have wandered away and never realized the significance and importance of what baptism means may very well want to return to their roots. Their joyous experience of being present is in itself a subtle way to evangelize. Others who may never have experienced a Catholic baptism with all the liturgical richness can thus be attracted to the Church that provides such a beautiful way for being born again.

As far as I am concerned and as I have experienced, the Catholic rite of funerals has within it a powerful form of evangelization. Again, and very important, a funeral vigil or funeral Mass we have very similar people as with the baptismal community. Again, the Church in her wisdom through the Word has provided some tremendous evangelization symbols for reflection by the assembly.

The priest needs to point out how we are looking back to our baptism by some of the symbolic rites at this funeral Mass. We pour water over the coffin, a reminder of the person’s original baptism; now a new life journey begins, just as with baptism the Christian life began. Then we cover the coffin with a white pall, a reminder of the white outfit worn at baptism to be worn all through life as an honest and authentic Christian, and again now worn as they enter into the new Kingdom.

Of equal importance comes at the conclusion of Mass when the priest or deacon censes the coffin (the body of the person within) with the comment that incense represents the sweet smell of how the Holy Spirit given at baptism continued in this body as a holy temple — and that the smoke clears the air and moves into the heavens your prayers and mine going on the new journey of the beloved.

FATHER BEAVER, O.S.B., writes from St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pa.